Petrolandia – Lotto Players
During my first few shifts, Sandor would sometimes do things and explain their need as time went on. One of those things was waiting until five fifty-eight and then printing lottery information.
Every day – every single day for four years – two men would walk from the drug building across the street between six and five-after. I don’t think they knew each other except in passing, but both of them were kindly and aging.
The first was a greying man; skin cracked like old soft leather from a life spent working in the sun, his eyes gentle and smile easy. “Hewwo,” he’d drawl, an affectation I initially found annoying. Over the years, though, I began to understand that this was simply a type of play for him – a brief moment of peace in the rush and bustle of the modern world. He’d make himself a medium coffee, add a little cream and study previous winning lottery numbers. He’d take a quick-play lotto ticket and a newspaper with his coffee, smile and then leave. No real conversation, just a simple interaction that was comfortable for its familiarity.
I did wonder what he wanted the print out of previous winners for. I found out years after the fact that he used them as bookmarks or the occasional paper airplane. He was good people even if I never learned his name.
I did learn Mark’s name, though.
Mark was the other one. A widower, retired mathematician and long-distance runner, Mark’s glory days were behind him but his joy in life was never absent. He wore white t-shirts with colorful slogans and hippie pants, his bald head covered by a fishing cap to keep weather away, his eyes hidden behind old aviator shades. I kept a running tally to see which was brighter – his smile or the sun.
“Young man, how are you doing this morning?” he’d say in his booming voice. He eschewed coffee but would sometimes indulge in a cup of tea.
“Oh, you know, still here,” I’d say, and I’d crack a smile and sometimes chuckle as he accepted the list of previous winning numbers and retreat to the back corner. With a pen he’d scrawl arcane formulas in the margins of the tickets, thoughtful and diligent before picking some numbers to run through as a ticket.
Sometimes, Eli would still be in the store and the two would chat about sports – never an actual game or event, but just the statistics.
“Sport is about the math of diminishing returns,” Mark declared. “The human body is not perpetual, and age takes us all. It’s about the numbers, how things run. You take your heart out of the game and it’s usually pretty easy to break down statistics and see who is going to win.”
“Why don’t you ever play sport lotteries, then?” Eli asked.
“What’s the point of sport if you take the heart out?” Mark would answer.
“I think there’s two meanings there,” I said, joining in. Mark motioned for me to continue. “The first is that if you don’t care about the thing, why pay attention to it? The second is that without heart no one would play, and players with heart sometimes do incredible things.”
“Exactly that,” Mark laughed. “I had asthma as a kid and became a long-distance runner through heart and sheer bullheadedness. You can never count out the human spirit – it’s a hard thing to kill.”
“Even with a knife,” Eli added, then paused. “You can do it with drugs, though.”
I loved early morning gas station philosophy.
“Okay,” I said, “then what about the lottery you play?”
“Ah, that’s all numbers,” Mark grinned, holding up his scroll. “So, math tells me there should be a pattern here somewhere, even if it is on too large a timeline to see it. The algorithm that gives us these numbers is aiming for random, but it’s taking the definition of random from some human somewhere, so if I can unravel his math…”
“And have you?”
“No, and I’m not likely to,” Mark grinned, handing me his chosen numbers. “But it’s a fun game to pass the time.”
Mark played daily, losing most of the time but winning often enough to break even.
I would not be able to tell you the statistical probability of that, but Mark probably could.